Ginseng has played a role in American history since the beginning

An article on a back page of today's paper with the headline "Poachers scour national parks, private land for ginseng" made me recall the role this herb has played in American history. The demand is from China, and the root fetches $350 per pound these days. This is not a new trade; it has figured in American history since independence.

Panax quinquefolia is cultivated in the United States, and Panax trifolia grows (or grew) wild in the United States and Canada. These aromatic plants are closely related to the Chinese Panax schinseng, which has been near extinction from overharvesting for centuries. Ginseng is related to the Aralia sarsaparilla, by which a root beer was flavored. Root beer drinks were an American tradition, now represented only by the soft drinks made from syrup and carbonated water and ginger beer imported from Australia. Prohibition probably wiped out the last traditional brewers, though my fundamentalist grandfather still made a non-alcoholic root beer at his summer camp beside the Juniata in the 1940's.

Wild Panax trifolia is a small plant, no higher than 8 inches, flowering from April to June with pink or white flowers and yellow berries. The newspaper article said that the demand was for the "thicker, larger wild plants," not the "wimpy cultivated variety." The cultivated variety, quinquefolia, grows 2 feet high. Newspaper reporters are not experts. Apparently, ginseng grows slowly, which would explain its susceptibility to over-harvesting.

The earliest settlers of the Indiana interior were poor refugees from the hills of the South, coming across the Ohio from Kentucky without money or slaves, looking for a place to exist where men were free. They squatted on the higher land in the gloomy forest after the Indians had been removed, planted some corn and kept chickens and pigs, and let miserable cattle roam the nearby woods. They suffered from malaria and milk sickness (the cows ate poisonous plants), and produced grey and scrawny children. Their crops could not be sold because of transport difficulties, so they had to scratch for money to buy the few luxuries they enjoyed. They could make whiskey, which was worth its transport, or extract potash from the wood that surrounded them. Both of these enterprises required some capital, for a still or pot, and a bit of labor, so they were not very popular. Everyone, however, could scour the woods for the ginseng root, which the travelling peddler and tinker with his pack mules would accept in trade for money, tobacco, coffee, tea, powder, lead, or playing cards, essentials they could not produce themselves. Ginseng was their one cash crop. Apparently, the search for ginseng, and probably also the destruction of the native forest (which was complete in Indiana) have led to its extinction there.

These hill settlers got their sugar from the maples, another activity that has been forgotten in Indiana. The self-sufficiency of these people was remarkable, as was their resourcefulness in avoiding hard labor. Later, the remnants were called Butternuts from the source of the dye for their home-made clothes, and Hoosiers from their reclusiveness and isolation that made them easy prey to swindlers. They did not own their land, and were eventually displaced into some limbo. Some historians, noting their origin in the South, blame them for support of slavery when Indiana was becoming a state. The slavers were actually the well-to-do of New Albany and Vincennes, a notable rough sort also found at Kaskaskia, preserving the ethos of the French and Spanish era of control of the region.

The ginseng root is used to make a tea that the Chinese believe invigorates and rejuvenates. It is not known to have the slightest therapeutic value of any kind, and may even be injurious in some cases. Ginseng poachers on public lands seem to be persecuted for a traditional, very American activity. No other use is made of the ginseng, and it appears to be a case of the dog in the manger, another very typical American posture, coupled with a love of prosecution.

The newly-born United States opened trade with China through the voyage of the Empress of China, promoted by the entrepreneurs Rogers and Parker. The ship's cargo consisted of some tons of ginseng, and 20,000 Spanish dollars, both items of great demand in China.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 26 November 2000
Last revised 5 July 2006